Faults in the Beit Hanoun account
According to HRW, on the 24th of July at around 3 pm, four apparent Israeli mortar shells struck a coeducational elementary school in Beit – Hanoun. There is no dispute that this was a horrific tragedy, 13 people, among them 6 children, were killed, and dozens of others were wounded. What is under dispute is who is responsible. The Palestinian authorities and HRW blame Israel and the IDF. The IDF suggests there was a Palestinian culpability. Both allegations require strong evidences, none of them has any. When it comes to the allegations made by HRW's investigators, they are the first to acknowledge the weaknesses of their findings. As they had said so in the account, they could not determine whether these were 81mm shells or 120mm shells. This means that they have made their accusation with no evidences. If they could not identify the type weapon, how could they identify its source? Instead, they tried to compensate that with a series of arguments that dismissed the possibility of a Palestinian responsibility, making Israel the only possible culprit. All these arguments are flowed, each and every one of them.
Their main argument is that of precision. From the HRW in-depth look. "The Israeli military denied responsibility for any civilian deaths in the school, saying that one "errant mortar" had hit the courtyard while it was empty. It also suggested that the school might have been hit by Palestinian rockets, saying that several rockets fired that day had fallen short and landed in Beit Hanoun.
It is highly unlikely that at least four of the inaccurate, unguided rockets used by Palestinian armed groups hit in and around the school within a few minutes."
First, how does this 'poor technology' argument rebukes the Israeli version?
The Israeli version describes rockets of poorer technology, rockets that fell short of their intended targets. So, in that regard HRW's argument is in accordance with the Israeli version. They too claim that Palestinians' rockets are of poor technology.
Second, how do they distinguish accurate high technology mortars, from inaccurate poor technology ones? What criteria are they using? From the above quotation, their criteria are the time lapses and distances between each of the mortar shells that hit the school's compound and its environs. And that is baffling. Time lapses between rockets launches are not a criterion that can serves that purpose. As these two youtube videos show, within 16 seconds 4 mortars can be fired by both an amateur, probably clumsy, Syrian rebel, and a professional team of US marines operation a heavy 120mm mortar (count from 0:52 to 1:08). Remember, according to HRW the 4 mortar shells fell within a time span of a few minutes. And one of their witnesses, Mohammed Hamad, saying that the second shell stroke half a minute after the first one.
As for distances, here HRW is not giving us any technical information on that subject. What is the distance between the places hit by mortar shells that can identify a high technology mortar over a poor technology one? We do not know, and we do not know if they know. They are also not telling us the distances between each of the mortar shells that have hit that school and its enviros. So, there is nothing to compare with even if the technical information was available. Without these details this argument is useless.
Third, what professional information is telling us about guided mortar munitions is that both guided and unguided mortar rounds fall at random. As the picture below show, the only difference between guided and unguided mortar shells is in the clustering of the strike sites. With a guidance system, more shells will fall closer to the intended target, increasing the likelihood of hitting it. This means that precision is determined not by the relations between the strike sites, but by their relation to the intended target. If the strike sites of these four rockets show precision, it means that HRW investigators were able to identify their intended target and measure the distances from there. No such target is explained.
Forth, as the same picture shows, even with unguided mortar rounds, more than four shells will fall closer to the target. So how could HRW investigators make their determination based on only four mortar shells? That is another thing that requires explanation.
Fifth, these people are regarded as investigators. Taking measurements, and consulting professional experts, are elementary components in any investigation. Where is that information? The lack of such information suggests that this was not a professional investigation. This cannot be just a slip, since they know the importance of such information. As a response to similar accusations regarding this UN run school, the IDF had released a video supporting its version of events. This video shows a single errant mortar shell, hitting the center of the school's courtyard when it was empty. However that video has one important shortcoming, it had no time stamp telling when it was taken. And HRW were correct in criticizing the IDF and the video for not including that information. Without that information we'll just have to take the IDF at their word that it was taken that day. But there is no way of independently knowing when this video was taken. The same goes for HRW precision argument. Without the professional information, technical and physical one, that tells us why these mortar shells are supposed to show precision firing, all we have is their word. And since they clearly know that words and accusation are not enough, and supporting information should be provided. Why haven't they provided any? The absence of this information does not only empty the precision argument from any meaning, it also undermines their credibility. It is just an empty statement, and they know it; since they presented the same standard on information provided by the IDF. And since it is not clear if they actually know how to identify precision firing, their word is also dubious. With no supporting information, and no evidence of having any expertise in this field of inquiry, the precision argument has nothing to stand on. And the source of these mortars remains unidentified.
HRW second argument, excludes motivation: "It is also unlikely that Palestinian armed groups would have targeted the area near the school with mortars when Israeli ground forces do not appear to have been in the immediate area at the time. On the contrary, Israel claimed that Palestinian forces were near the school at the time. It is similarly implausible that Palestinian mortar fire hit in and around at least four times by accident." Excluding motivation and capabilities is a legitimate form of inquiry, as long as it is done properly. This one is simply incomplete. Accidents involving mortar fire can happen for a variety of reasons; some of them can impact all mortar shells and causes them to hit the wrong target, and stray away from the intended one. If maintenance is poor and safety standards are lacking all the rockets fired can do that, certainly more than one. Why do you think armed forces give maintenance and safety so much importance? Just look at the attention NATO is giving to this subject. With modern armed forces maintenance includes specialist officers, maintenance training, maintenance manuals, and maintenance supervision and inspection. Excluding that requires reviewing and examining the maintenance standards and practices of the armed Palestinian groups. And HRW haven't even approached that part. So that possibility remains open. Another plausible cause of accidents is the mortar itself, its level of maintenance, especially the aiming mechanism that could be malfunctioning. These two causes were not approached and therefor are not excluded.
The human factor is another possible cause that HRW did not exclud. They argue that armed Palestinian groups had no reason to fire at that area since there were no Israeli forces there. That is probably correct, but that is hindsight, their hindsight. Field commanders and their units do not have that luxury during an ongoing fire exchange. Many times they have to make snap decisions based on the information available to them at that moment; without having the ability, or time, to verify it. The main outcome of these objective constrains is that they increase the likelihood of mistaken identity. This is a part of the basic nature of every war; one that makes mistaken identity one of the biggest contributors to unwanted deaths. The most famous example of such unwanted deaths is what is known as friendly-fire incidents. It occurs when armed units from one side are firing at other armed units from the same side. Civilians can also be mistaken that way, buy both sides. How likely that is in this situation is undetermined since HRW did not approach this possibility, and therefor did not exclude it. Issues of bad maintenance and mistaken identity are common to every war and conflict. Ignoring them further undermine the professionality and integrity of this investigation.
HRW third argument claims to be eyewitness accounts. These are seven persons, which HRW credits their testimony with the ability to dispute the Israeli version. The Israeli version claims a single errant mortar shell hit the middle of the school's courtyard, when it was empty. HRW claims they're witnesses saw otherwise. From the article:" The accounts of seven witnesses who independently spoke to Human Rights Watch contradict the Israeli military's description of the video. All said that people were in and around the courtyard when the two mortar shells struck, and that many of the wounded people were hit there." That is not a contradiction. The Israeli version does not dispute the fact that this tragedy happened. It doesn't even dispute the fact that it was caused by mortar fire. All the IDF had said was that it was not one of their mortars. For the eye witnesses to dispute the Israeli version they would have to actually see and identify the source of the mortars fired at them. That is something that cannot be done. The mortar is an infantry carried long rage weapon that can be fired from behind buildings. With plenty of interferences to the field of view that exist in any urban settings, identifying and recognizing the party responsible for the source of fire is impossible. Unless unique conditions of visibility existed, there weren't any. If there were any, HRW and their witnesses would have been able to identify the exact location of the source of a mortar fire. They did not do that. The ability to identify the exact identity of the source of a mortar fire without its exact location is self-contradictory. This is basic common sense. The only way this could actually happen is if unique and even extra - ordinary conditions had existed at the time. No such circumstances are detailed to us. Like a promise that cannot be delivered this is an expectation that should not have been made. The accounts of eyewitnesses should not be discarded, but you shouldn't give it capabilities it does not have. When you do that you make their testimony useless. Such a conduct is an abuse of the victims and demeaning the horrific experience they have been through.
Their witnesses do offer an important piece of information, the sightings of Israeli tanks. Unlike a mortar carrying infantry unit, tanks are large, noisy, ground shaking vehicles. Easily seen and heard; and when they shake the earth beneath us even the deaf and the blind will notice their presence. And when they come in numbers they are difficult to miss. Nonetheless, HRW investigators went to the two locations identified by their witnesses. And in one of them they had even found boxes of 7.62mm ammunition, the standard ammunition for machine guns carried by tanks (and other vehicles). The most important thing regarding these 7.62mm ammunition boxes is that they are not 81mm ammunition boxes or 120mm ammunition boxes. And you don't have to be a military expert to know the difference between machine guns and mortars. But it was enough for HRW to find this evidence damming because:" The tanks demonstrate the presence of Israeli troops in the vicinity who could have been the source of the mortar rounds."
Could is a very user friendly word. You don't need the pinpoint location of Israeli soldiers when your allegations are based on could. Nearly every location in and around Beit Hanoun can fit the bill. After all, even if they were not seen at that particular spot they could have been there, or there, or over there, or elsewhere. When they use the word 'could' they openly admit they did not find the source of the mortar fire, yet that does not prevent them from making serious accusations. In a democratic country allegations are not based on could, but on did. Can you imagine a person been charged with a crime based on could have been the killer? Someone was killed with an icepick and the police are charging a person who was caught with a screwdriver. Their rational, since he was carrying a screwdriver, he could have carried an icepick. If something remotely resembling this example was to occur, human rights organizations world over would have protested. And they would have been right to do so. Charging someone based on could is arbitrary. The investigators simply picked the easiest locations to find. And that’s what makes it arbitrary. Piking this location just because of its visibility is an act of convenience, not of an investigation. Even if the precision argument wasn't so flowed, these "could have been…" charges would have been wrong. That is because under the basic principles of democracy and human rights, arbitrary punishment is wrong. True, HRW does not have the means to arrest and detain. But, Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa division, did call US secretary of state, John Kerry, to penalize Israel based on their investigations. She did so in a letter published on August 11th, 2014, which is disturbing since according to this "In depth look," they were still investigating (or documenting) on August, 12, 13, and 29.
And there is another problem that needs explaining. Why would a group of tanks, with their own canons, and hi-tech aiming systems, as well as armored protection, need the assistance of a naturally exposed, mortar carrying infantry unit? That question is not been asked. The unlikelihood of such a situation only increases the arbitrariness of their accusations. If they had found a mortar carrying infantry unit they would have been in a better position. They haven't, and that raises the specter of another possibility. That they did make an effort to find such, but failed, after all, they did spend three days on this case, while only one for each of the other two. What was the difference this time? What was it that required two extra days of work?
At best the Beit Hanoun investigation is a sloppy one. Since they haven't identified the exact munition involved, they have no weapon to connect to the crime. It is either 81mm or 120mm. And their precision argument that backs there accusations shows no understanding of mortar firing and has no necessary supporting technical information. They tried to exclude a Palestinian motive in this incident, without addressing the possibility of bad maintenance of mortars and bad intelligence on behalf of the Palestinian side. These are two factors that are the most common causes of unwanted deaths in times of war. They have no eye witnesses. All their witnesses saw is what anyone else in their position could have seen. They saw the mortar shells hitting the school's compound and its enviros, but not the source of this mortars and not the identity of those who launched them. And by failing to identify a mortar carrying Israeli infantry unit, operating at the time within the mortar range from that school; the failed in finding the opportunity IDF had to do this alleged crime. No weapon, no witnesses, no opportunity to do the crime, and the motives, and ability of the other suspects, the Palestinian armed groups, are not completely excluded. And yet they make definitive charges. These are serious charges that are not supported by a single fact, a finding, evidence, or a testimony. From this account there is simply no way of knowing who is responsible for that tragedy.